Ms. Garcia* was waiting for us outside the office. Her family had arrived in Canada in the fall, when temperatures were a little closer to what they were used to. By now the air had turned a bit colder, edged with a hint of the Ontario winter to come.
The circumstances of the family’s arrival in Canada were not happy. Yet despite their sudden uprooting to a new country, her son was doing well. His teacher had immediately observed skill and understanding in his work, and each new day revealed quickly-developing English skills.
Ms. Garcia sent word through a family friend that she wanted to speak with us about her son. What kind of work did he do in class? How was he handling the stress of being in a new country? Did he have friends? She had all the questions any parent or caregiver would, but the language barrier prevented her from asking them with the same ease others enjoyed. We immediately scheduled a meeting with an interpreter for the following week.
The classroom teacher and I reached the office and greeted her. She returned our smiles warmly yet silently, and we walked into the adjoining conference room together. Soon after, the interpreter arrived. After a moment of removing coats and pulling up chairs, a stillness settled around the table, that slightly-uncertain pause before a meeting begins.
And then the interpreter gave us a gift.
Seamlessly moving from English to Spanish, he asked us to please look at one another — and to ignore him. We were to think of him, he continued, as an audio system off to the side, who would make our words intelligible to the person we were addressing. Then he stopped, moved his chair back slightly, and lowered his gaze to the table. A second or two passed in silence, and then we all looked away from him and towards one another.
Ms. Garcia spoke first. Although I could not understand her words, the slight furrow of her brow, the tiny shake of her head, made her worry apparent. Seconds later the gentle, slightly quieter voice of the interpreter followed her words, gracefully trailing them with perfectly concise English. The same thing happened when the classroom teacher responded, still facing Ms. Garcia, and we barely noticed the subdued Spanish rounding off her sentences. The conversation continued in this way, almost like a duet, a back and forth that was different, and in many ways the same, as any other conversation. It took a bit of getting used to, a bit more of a pause between statements, but eventually all of us were lulled into this new way of communicating, this new way of speaking directly to one another.
The exchange was different from other meetings I had experienced, across the ocean and many years ago. When I worked overseas as a young adult, I sometimes needed people to interpret for me. And although intentions were always good (to this day I am profoundly grateful for the kindness and empathy shown me) at times interpretations could feel as isolating as the language barrier itself. When someone is talking about you in your presence, with utterances couched in the third person, when the speaker is not looking at you … it can sometimes feel as though you are not really there. Statements such as “Tell her this”, or “She should do that” are double-edged swords — the information you need is communicated, but the human connection inherent in conversation is absent. I suppose in this sense, they were never really “meetings” at all. I was simply the eventual recipient of a message.
Today, I am keenly aware of the much higher stakes for multilingual parents and caregivers. All those years ago, I received interpreted information that I needed for myself, and no one else. I did not have a child I loved more than anything in the world to advocate for. When I try to imagine what that must be like, to entrust my child to an unfamiliar school system, to navigate it in a different language, I am overcome with awe and respect for multilingual families.
As teachers we know it is essential to build relationships with parents and caregivers; we cannot serve students to the best of our abilities if we do not have the trust and partnership of their families. And for those families without the linguistic capital to easily communicate with the school, our responsibility is heightened. With a simple statement, “Please look at one other”, the interpreter at our meeting gave us the gift we needed for the beginning of that journey.
Our conversation with Ms. Garcia continued for some time that day. The classroom teacher showed samples of her son’s work, described his strengths, and even shared laughter with Ms. Garcia. To anyone passing by in the hall, the tableau we presented must have looked curious: three women leaning towards each other in conversation, and a kind-looking man with downcast eyes, off to the side and seemingly shunned! By the time our meeting ended, the goodbyes and gratitudes stood in lively contrast to our quiet greeting 40 minutes earlier. Our interpreter was all smiles.
Throughout my career I have gleaned numerous insights from colleagues and ESL specialists on parent and caregiver engagement. Here are just a few tips that I have found useful in creating welcoming schools and ensuring open communication for multilingual families:
- translating important school notices into many languages
- having dual language books and multilingual learning resources readily available and used in classrooms and libraries
- creating and translating tip sheets for caregivers, including “how to help your child in reading and math” or “how to maintain first language”
- ensuring regular contact through settlement workers and interpreters, to see if caregivers have questions or need updates
- not assuming that silence on the part of caregivers indicates a lack of interest in their child’s education; language barriers, cultural expectations of deference to the teacher, unfamiliarity with how the Ontario school system works, adjustment and feelings of overwhelm are just some of the reasons caregivers may not actively engage with teachers and the school
Many years after the meeting with Ms. Garcia, the events of that day stay with me as a reminder of the importance of connection, and the multilingual tools we have to facilitate it. As the holidays now draw to a close and we face the cold months ahead, I am looking forward to discovering many more such winter gifts.
*names have been changed